Gerry Georgatos – The Department of Communities Western Australia which incorporates public housing in its regime recently suggested in the media that disruptive behaviour is one of the major underwriters to the Department’s alarmingly high eviction rate of public housing tenants. Wrong.

Western Australia has the nation’s highest eviction rate of public housing tenants. Victoria has less than half the eviction toll from its public housing compared to Western Australia. Victoria has more than twice the number of public houses compared to Western Australia.

Social housing is where after our homeless citizens, our nation’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens live.

Let us set the record straight.

I will argue that extreme – crushing – poverty is the major causal narrative underwriting the high evictions. However, it’s the State Government and its Department of Communities that is failing to adequately support seriously vulnerable families – evicting children onto the streets, evicting domestic violence victims onto the streets, evicting the poorest of the poor onto the streets.

It is not true that the majority of evictions are due to disruptive behaviour. The Western Australian Auditor General’s Report, “Managing Disruptive Behaviour in Public Housing 2018-19″, recorded for the two-year period July 2016 to April 2018 that “the number of evictions for this period was also low at 63, or less than 0.2% of all properties.”

There were sadly 1,242 evictions during this two-year period, of which 63 evictions were attributed to disruptive behaviour. This translates to 5.07 percent of total evictions.

In each of the last three years, West Australia’s Department of Housing (which is part of the Department of Communities) has evicted more than 500 families.

  • 680 families evicted 2016-17
  • 562 families evicted 2017-18
  • 512 families evicted 2018-19 (as of April)

Sadly, the incumbent West Australian Government is dealing out a higher eviction rate than the previous Government.

  • 495 families evicted 2015-16
  • 389 families evicted 2014-15
  • 456 families evicted 2013-14

The Auditor-General’s report describes the Department of Communities/Housing has failed vulnerable families. “Opportunities to achieve better outcomes for more vulnerable tenants and the community are missed. Early intervention is limited to giving tenants a short ‘Help is Available’ brochure that lists tenant support services at the start of each tenancy. Tenant support is typically not offered until disruptive behaviour incidents are reported. We found strikes were issued against tenants with complex mental health illness, family violence or inter-generational dysfunction. The Department does not direct resources towards early intervention for these tenants, instead following standard procedures to manage all disruptive behaviour.”

The Department of Communities response to the Auditor-General’s findings is to invest more funds into the same failed programs, rebadged under another title. The Auditor-General found what most already knew of the Department’s flagship program STEP (Support and Tenancy Education Program), that STEP “did not focus enough on early intervention or culturally appropriate services…”. The Department of Communities introduced the ‘new’ Thrive Program, from July 2019. Where STEP had scored $35 million, Thrive is being dished $50 million.

I have written before of a service making the difference most of us long yearned for. That service is the humble First Nations Homelessness Project – an eviction prevention service in Perth which in the last 20 months has prevented the evictions of 156 families from 160 efforts. It first began as a volunteer group doing the remarkable and was finally funded a million dollars a year by the Commonwealth Government to do what the $35 million dollars invested by the State Government in STEP should have achieved. I declare my impartiality conflict as the part-time project manager of the FNHP however I am beyond rational comprehension as to why the State Government though they know full well the FNHP success story has nevertheless failed to fund and expand the FNHP. The project cannot just be praised by State Government Ministers and bureaucrats but not supported with funding. This project’s service is to Western Australian families. The FNHP has reduced the social housing eviction toll of First Nations families by thereabouts 30 percent. STEP workers have often turned to the FNHP for help with vulnerable families.

On a meagre million dollars a year the FNHP has achieved a 30 percent reduction – and in 20 months prevented 156 evictions. Imagine what they could achieve with the level of funding dished out to STEP/Thrive.

The major purpose of this article is to smash the myth that the majority of evictions from public housing are because of disruptive behaviour. Disruptive behaviour accounts for much less than 10 percent of evictions. Poverty is the causal narrative.

After the homeless, the poorest Australians are those who live in public housing. Between 25 to 30 percent of household income is taken as rent by the Department Housing. They live on very little, struggling to put quality food on the table, to meet utilities, many going without warmth during winter, struggling to pay for school essentials, going without rudimentary recreational needs that the majority of Australians take for granted, bringing up children on bare bone budgets. The rent share for public housing rentals should be reduced to 10 percent and we instead understand ourselves as a society where we do not marginalise the poorest, where we assist struggling families to improve the lot, the hopes of their children.

Thrive needs to work with families both in early and late interventions and under no circumstance allow families to be tossed to the streets. It is disgraceful, a shame job, when victims of domestic violence, when the physically and mentally unwell, when children are evicted to the streets or into dire predicaments where families are torn apart.

It is unforgivable that the State Government has not funded the First Nations Homelessness Project success story – even a few million dollars each year. In the least, the FNHP model should have been replicated by Thrive.

The Daydawn Advocacy Centre is a salt-of-the-earth coalface organisation working alongside Perth’s most vulnerable families. Daydawn solicitor Susannah Connor stated, “Before FNHP started, in my opinion I could often not prevent a termination for standards and debt. Now, I believe evictions for standards and debt amongst my clients are virtually non-existent when FNHP is involved. Usually the work the FNHP does can convince the courts not to terminate a tenancy. Where a tenancy cannot be saved in the courts, FNHP will continue to support tenants and has managed to save their homes despite court orders.”

“I cannot recall a single client of Daydawn’s who has been evicted to homelessness while working with FNHP.”

“There is no equivalent alternative service to FNHP in WA. If FNHP does not continue, many families will become homeless, who would otherwise have been able to keep their homes.”

Susannah Connor argues, “My regard for FNHP and for their work cannot be overstated. In my opinion they are a key factor in preventing a huge number of Aboriginal people being made homeless in WA over the past few years.”

The Western Australian Government and the Department of Communities can argue whatever they like but the statistics tell the story, screaming loud and clear. Their programs thus far, STEP and others are big fails. Overall, as the incumbent Government they have to own the nation’s highest eviction rates from public housing – of the poorest among us.

 

  • Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher and has a part time role with the First Nations Homelessness Project as the FNHP’s project manager. Gerry is the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project and the former coordinator of the National Indigenous Critical Response Service.